Body-Shaming: How To Spot It + How To Stop It

Do you ever catch yourself in a downward spiral of negative self-talk about your body?

I’m willing to bet that you probably wouldn’t dream of ever saying the critical, hurtful things you think about yourself to your best friend, your spouse, or your child — would you?

So then why is body shaming something we tolerate and perpetuate for ourselves?

The interesting thing about negative self-talk is that it does nothing productive. The rationale behind punishment of any kind is usually that it will teach us a lesson — that we won't repeat the “bad” behavior again. But body-shaming thoughts like, “I really blew my diet today; I have no self-control” or “I look so fat and disgusting in this outfit, no wonder I’m single” don’t fix anything.

In fact, negative self-talk can actually hinder your progress toward dieting or weight loss. Truly, the best way to develop a healthy relationship with food and your body is to stop the shaming and start affirming your healthy habits, your self-supporting beliefs, and what you’re doing right.

Here are five tips for banishing body-shaming thoughts:

1. Make mindfulness your mantra.

Being mindful is the simple act of being more aware of your knee-jerk reactions, thoughts, and feelings about your body. Just as mindless eating plays a big role when it comes to weight gain, mindless “thinking” — that negative downward spiral of thoughts that trigger self-criticism and feelings of failure, regret, or shame — can just as powerfully give you momentum toward disaster.

When you put on an outfit that always makes you self-conscious, or when you step on the scale each morning, make a point to pause. Breathe. Notice what immediate thoughts arrive. From there, decide whether or not they are serving positive growth or serving negative, self-defeating (and probably long-standing) patterns. If the thought doesn’t serve you, replace it with a positive one.

2. Accept yourself now (not next week, tomorrow, or in an hour).

Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, says that guilt is one of the leading causes of diet “slip-ups.” It’s based on what researchers have dubbed the “what-the-hell” effect: you have a minor setback (you ate a few cookies on your diet) that you turn into a total sabotage (you finish off the entire bag of cookies because you feel like you already blew it). So not only do guilt and shame feel terrible, but they can actually trigger the very behaviors you’re trying to avoid.

The key? Accept yourself now — no matter how much you weigh, what you see in the mirror, or how your clothes fit. Acceptance, McGonigal says, helps you increase your sense of responsibility about where you are now — which will motivate you to get to where you’d like to be.

3. Use affirmations (you have to actually use them!).

Affirmations may feel silly to you at first, but they can be incredibly effective at reprogramming negative internal messages into positive ones. Emerging research is beginning to suggest that positive affirmations can actually protect people against the damaging effects of stress and improve problem-solving abilities. If you struggle with body-shaming thoughts, therefore, affirmations may help you become more goal-oriented and less stuck in the emotional drama that negative self-talk tends to bring. Thoughts are habits, so the more you work to create affirming, encouraging ones, the better you’ll be able to replace limiting beliefs about yourself with a sense of self-empowerment love.

4. Default to compassion.

It may be easier said than done, but compassion is the best possible approach to both body-shaming thoughts and behaviors. A popular study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that when college women were given a “compassion intervention” after eating doughnuts (where researchers basically told them things like, “Don’t be too hard on yourself for indulging,” or, “Everyone eats unhealthy foods sometimes; it’s OK”), these women actually ate less candy afterward than a group of women who also ate the doughnuts but who weren’t given the same compassion intervention. The main take-away? Compassion works better than criticism — so make it your default.

5. Turn your focus away from what you look like and toward how you feel.

For instance, you may look in the mirror and think you need to lose 15 pounds. But are you eating right? Are you taking care of your body? Are you being gentle and self-supportive? Are you healthy? If you can answer yes to these questions, consider that good enough. True health isn’t about fitting into a certain size or losing the muffin top — it’s about cultivating an internal state that supports a glowing, confident, and happy “external” you.

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